MUNCIE, Ind. — While vaccine distribution was going strong in Delaware County for months, with local clinics vaccinating hundreds to thousands of patients every week, things have continued to slow down as summer approaches.
According to the Indiana State Department of Health’s vaccine dashboard, 38,288 Delaware County residents had been fully vaccinated as of Friday morning, making up roughly 33% of the population.
While local healthcare systems, including IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital, Open Door Health Services and Meridian Health Services, are happy to have administered that many shots, the drop in vaccine demand has some concerned.
Health officials from each clinic told The Star Press that in recent weeks, the pace of vaccine appointments has slowed, especially when it comes to those receiving their first dose.
Jeff Bird, president of IU Health’s East Central Region, said it is worrisome Delaware County is falling short of its vaccination goal numbers, but local clinics are working to continue communication efforts to reinforce the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
“We are still seeing many very ill patients suffering from COVID infections at IU Health Ball. We are still averaging around 30 sick inpatients every day with about 10 needing ICU care and mechanical ventilators,” Bird said. “Over 98% of our COVID admissions to the hospital are unvaccinated patients.”
Ashley Wilson, director of clinical operations at Open Door, said she will remain hopeful if the percentage of vaccinated individuals continues to increase, particularly before the start of school in the fall.
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However, she is concerned with the low percentage of those fully vaccinated in the county, as it is nowhere near herd immunity, which lies between 70 and 80% of the population being vaccinated. While vaccine rates remain low, she’s noticed more and more people go out without masks.
“I think everyone is feeling the fresh energy that spring and summer bring, and people just want to get back to normal,” Wilson said. “I think I can speak for everyone in that regard, but the fact of the matter is that we still need to protect our vulnerable friends and neighbors in our community by getting vaccinated, and by continuing to wear masks in crowded or public spaces until we have reached a point of herd immunity. ”
Here’s what you need to know about new clinic hours, teenagers and vaccines, and the future of local vaccine distribution:
Clinic hours begin to shift
As demand remains low for COVID-19 vaccines, many health officials across the country have started to ask if their vaccine clinics need to be open all day, every day.
For local clinics, including Ball Memorial Hospital, Open Door and Meridian, the answer is no. And as fewer patients come in for their first dose, the clinics are already limiting hours.
At Meridian, changes were already implemented, with the healthcare system moving its larger vaccine clinic at the Suzanne Gresham Center to two local primary care site offices on May 17.
Current hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, at Meridian MD, 100 N. Tillotson Ave; and 1-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Meridian Pediatric Complex, 205 N. Tillotson Ave.
Lisa Suttle, Meridian’s regional vice president of clinical services, said the change has been welcomed by patients, especially those who wanted more privacy.
“What we did at Gresham was awesome, of being able to have that big place and space for people to come in,” Suttle said. “But I felt like when (that patient) came in, that she was very private; and she was able to bring her daughter with her, get in right away, get the vaccine and had some one-on-one time with her provider.”
Meridian is currently offering Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines at the primary care sites, but as of June 1, it will also be able to offer Pfizer, which has been approved for younger populations.
Suttle said the ultra-cold freezer needed to store the Pfizer vaccines will be held at one location, but the shots can be easily transported if patients at other sites wish to receive that shot.
Those wanting to schedule a vaccine at Meridian will need to call the individual office, or Meridian’s general phone number, 765-288-1928. The new sites will also still be listed on the state’s website, ourshot.in.gov, with office information provided. However, vaccines will no longer be able to be scheduled online.
Ball Memorial has also shifted its vaccine clinic hours in the hospital’s south tower, which provides Pfizer vaccines only. Bird told The Star Press that over the next six weeks, clinic hours will continue to be reduced. The goal is to close the dedicated vaccine clinic by July.
But that doesn’t mean vaccines will be gone for good at Ball Memorial.
“We will continue to give COVID-19 vaccines at several IU Health pharmacies, and hope to expand COVID-19 vaccination options to many of our primary care locations,” Bird said. “We are confident we can easily meet any ongoing demand for vaccines in our community and region with our ongoing plan.”
Beginning May 24 and for the following weeks, the south tower’s clinic will be open 2-6 p.m. Wednesdays and 8 a.m.-noon on Fridays. It will be closed Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
The hospital’s J&J vaccine clinic, located in the Pavilion Community Pharmacy in the hospital’s main lobby, will be open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. It is now closed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Walk-ins are welcome at both locations.
Open Door is also changing its clinic hours, beginning June 1, at its 333 S. Madison St. location. Vaccines will be available, with appointments encouraged, 8 a.m.-1 p.m., Mondays and Wednesdays, and noon-5 p.m., Tuesdays and Fridays.
All three types of the vaccine are offered at this site. However, Suzanne Clem, director of community awareness at Open Door, said quantities of J&J and Pfizer are limited and subject to availability. Pfizer is currently only available to ages 12-18 due to the limited supply.
Starting June 1, Open Door will also begin offering community vaccinations, Monday through Saturday, at its urgent care location,1651 E. 29th St. Previously, this site only offered J&J. Appointments for either site can be made at OurShot.IN.gov.
Neighborhood clinics to continue
While things are slowing down at larger vaccination sites, Open Door and Meridian are still seeing some success at their neighborhood clinics, and will continue to make the vaccine available in different ways.
The neighborhood clinics, which are usually one-day events, have popped up in places around the county, including Urban Light Community Church and the Ross Community Center.
Clem said Open Door’s neighborhood vaccination series has seen anywhere from five to 30 vaccinations per event throughout the pandemic. While that may seem a small number, these events are supposed to be more intimate, so those who live in the underserved areas can have one-on-one time with providers.
“In conversations at these events, we’ve heard from community members who got vaccinated at the event specifically because it was close to home,” Clem said. “While we know numbers will be relatively small at these events, it’s a huge win when we’re able to provide a shot to someone who might not otherwise have had easy access to it.”
The neighborhood clinics welcome walk-ups, and currently offer J&J. A list of upcoming events can be found at opendoorhs.org/covidvaccine/.
Meridian Health Services has also seen success with their satellite clinics, and now, it’s finding new ways to bring the vaccine to the community.
Suttle said that in addition to visiting neighborhood areas, Meridian is now offering the various types of vaccines to businesses in the area. The healthcare system reached out to about 25 different companies to offer first doses and follow-ups for second doses.
Most recently, they visited Muncie Power, and since then, two more local businesses have reached out for vaccines.
“In no way are we trying to force it on people. We’re just trying to be accessible and educate them about it,” Suttle said. “I think that’s probably what everybody’s doing in the community right now. Not going away, just saying, ‘Hey, we’re still here, and it’s available if you want it.'”
Vaccines now available for younger populations
As of mid-May, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for those ages 12-15, and other vaccine providers are looking to do the same. As shots are approved for younger populations, clinics are hoping to see more teenagers.
While many local school systems are waiting for recommendations from the state on vaccines, social distancing and masks for the upcoming school year, some have already made their decision, like Indiana University and Notre Dame; both announcing they would be requiring vaccines, a move that has been challenged.
Wilson said vaccination of children and young adults is an important step to getting back to normal, and will allow children to have more normal school days without masks and social distancing.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we will get to that point until we have enough students — and every age group — vaccinated so that the spread and severity of COVID is drastically reduced,” Wilson said.
A mother of three school-aged children herself, Wilson said she knows it’s a tough decision for parents to make. But as a public health professional, she knows the importance of the vaccine.
If local vaccination rates remain only in the 30% range, the pandemic could linger. Wilson said she asks the community to think about how the virus is impacting the mental health of children.
“I think sometimes, we forget how this may be affecting them,” Wilson said. “I would encourage every parent to speak with their child and ask that simple question, as well as asking their kids how they are dealing with all of the changes and challenges that have come about, then make the vaccination decision together.”
Bird and Suttle echoed that sentiment, especially since younger populations tend to be more asymptomatic and can take home the virus to older family members.
So far, a few local schools, including Cowan Junior-Senior High School, have worked with vaccine clinics to get students their appointments.
“It’s very important. This disease does not show any disparity,” Suttle said. “So, it’s not like it will just touch the older population.”
The future of vaccine distribution
With larger clinics no longer bringing in the numbers they once did, local health officials expect vaccines to continue to move into primary care and physician offices.
Currently, Ball Memorial and Open Door are working on ways to do that, with the hopes that the trust patients have in their own personal physicians might help the acceptance of vaccines.
However, there is no question about the availability of the vaccines going forward.
“We have no concerns about vaccine distribution going forward,” Bird said. “There will be many, many options to get vaccinated and the supply continues to be strong, so that everyone can get vaccinated.”
When it comes to vaccinating those who now remain unvaccinated, it could be more of a challenge. For the local healthcare systems, they’re hoping things improve as vaccines are brought to a more private setting with primary care doctors. But it’s also about marketing to the right group.
“From research about vaccine hesitancy and vaccine uptake, there’s opportunity to focus on people who aren’t staunchly opposed to the vaccine, but who may be ambivalent or just haven’t found the right time to get vaccinated yet,” Clem said.
Making the vaccine convenient and providing it directly in neighborhoods and work sites is a way Open Door is trying to reach that group. Clem said practitioners also encourage those who are vaccinated to share their experience with others.
“Sometimes hearing a friend or family member say they got vaccinated and feel good about it helps a person decide it’s time to get theirs,” Clem said.
It’s also about the way healthcare professionals speak about vaccines, and for Suttle, that has to be a soft approach in order to get more shots into arms.
Just as Clem suggested people share their stories, Meridian has videotaped and taken photos and testimonials of its team members getting the vaccine, and posted them to their website.
Being able to answer patients’ questions face-to-face has helped tremendously. Being able to back up those questions with personal experiences and honest answers has helped, too, Suttle said.
“I know that goes miles,” Suttle said. “You know, when they can see somebody and they can actually ask them questions about how it was, the first and second vaccine, or just with the J&J (experience).”
For more information on the vaccine and clinic times, visit meridianhs.org/covid-19/, opendoorhs.org/covidvaccine/ and iuhealth.org/covid19/covid-19-vaccine.